"The fact there's a door means it is meant to open."

STEM studentship recipient Jessica McConnell reflects on applying for her PhD in Chemistry from a "non-academic" family

Jessica McConnell is one of two new ҹѰ students to receive fully funded three-year studentships through a partnership between ҹѰ, the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, and the Cambridge Trust. 

Jessica headshot

Jessica McConnell is a first-year Chemistry PhD student from North Ayrshire, Scotland. She is one of two new ҹѰ students to receive a fully-funded studentship for Women in the Sciences.

"I am thrilled that donations to the ҹѰ Fund for Women in STEM have enabled us to create funding partnerships to support Jessica and two other brilliant new PhD students this year," noted Senior Tutor Dr Susan Larsen. "The Fund for Women in STEM is central to our strategic plan to attract and support talented postgraduates in fields where they are currently under-represented. We are hugely grateful to the donors who sustain this Fund and to our University partners who recognise the importance of supporting Women in STEM."

Jointly supervised by Professor Dame Clare Grey and Dr Svetlana Menkin, Jessica’s research looks to make batteries that charge better, last longer, and use more sustainable materials. As someone from a “non-academic family”, Jessica is keen to share the challenges and anxieties of making steps into higher education; however, she equally reflects on the skills that she carries with her into academia though watching her mother navigate the agricultural world.

Can you briefly summarise your route to ҹѰ? Did you always want to do postgraduate study or study at Cambridge?

Prior to starting the PhD, I worked at a company in the North-East of England called . Before this, I completed my integrated masters in Chemical Physics at the University of Edinburgh. Deciding on doing a PhD was difficult as I loved my work and all the people I knew there, and I don't enjoy big changes. However, I also knew I enjoyed the scientific process too much that if I didn't do one, I would regret it.

I had never genuinely considered Cambridge as a viable option as it just felt like it was an unrealistic goal, like something you only read about in books. 

I remember not even telling my parents I was applying for a PhD in fear of their reaction, let alone that I had reached out to a researcher here or had applied; I'm not from an academic family.

Can you explain your project in simple terms? Why is your topic important? 

My main focus lies in the electrolyte of certain lithium-ion batteries and how different compositions influence the overall performance and lifetime of these batteries. There are not many people in the world that don't use batteries every day. The importance of them is rising mainly as a sustainability and climate change concern. 

My research is looking to make them charge better, live longer, and hopefully use more environmentally friendly materials too.

You were awarded a studentship made possible through donations to the ҹѰ fund for Women in STEM. How did you feel when you found out that you had received this funding? 

I was over the moon! I read the offer so many times before I celebrated because I couldn't believe it. I told my friends, and I got all teary-eyed because I was happy I was going, but then I was sad I was leaving. Being from an area in Scotland where very few go into higher education, let alone to a PhD, I'm still baffled at where I am. 

I'm from a farming background, which is typically also a male-dominated profession. Watching and learning how my mum has navigated the agricultural world and made sure her voice was listened to has meant I've never felt that being the female minority means my voice shouldn't be heard or that my ideas are worthless.

I feel very well supported where I am and I find I always want to provide support as well, especially to the women in STEM who feel they're not welcome. The door for women is intimidatingly closed, but the fact there's a door means it's meant to open.

How have you found settling into ҹѰ life so far? 

ҹѰ has been great, and the mature student body has been really important. I like that there are no recent school leavers screaming around campus, and the majority feel focused and understanding. I've regularly gone to the clubroom for some quiet reading and some pool. A small group of us have been using the rooms to have movie nights weekly! I have also been going to the ҹѰ gym regularly and that has been nice. For the most part I've just been catching up with long-distance friends and taking downtime when I've needed it.

Do you have any tips for prospective students looking to start a PhD?

The best bit of advice is prep as much as you can. The applications are there to show yourself off, use the boxes wisely! And email supervisors well in advance before applying. 

In terms of supervisor relationship, it depends on the person but for me, I just remember mine are human. I ask them how their day is, I efficiently present in meetings (because we're all running low on time), and I ask copious amounts of questions. I'm here to learn and they want me to learn!

What does your day-to-day life look like as a PhD Chemist? What aspect of being a PhD student do you like the most?

I'm reading research papers, designing experiments, learning how to use equipment, and getting to know my group. I've already made a few batteries which is really exciting.

 I like that everyone is interested, and that my group even has opportunities to do outreach activities at schools. I like that this PhD is what I make of it.

What are your goals for the future? Do you have any idea where your PhD might take you?

Honestly, I have no clue. I've tried to make plans in the past but past me doesn't know what I know now, so I haven't fulfilled a single long-term plan that I have ever made. I'll decide when I'm nearing the end of the PhD but in the meantime, I'll chase everything I enjoy and keep adding to my learning and experience and network. 

Sometimes a plan gives you tunnel-vision and you stop asking yourself what you want to do as your experiences are changing your perspective. One thing is for sure: there are going to be more big changes in my future, which I'll need to get used to and keep learning from! 

Read more

This article is part of the 2023/4 Postgraduate Student Profile Series:

You can learn more about the funding available at ҹѰ and how to apply to study for a postgraduate course at Cambridge University as a ҹѰ student on our website. 

You can also watch our to find out more about the social and academic environment at ҹѰ.

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